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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Feature Article

CLOSING THE INFRASTRUCTURE GAP

Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog
2002-12-05

A recent report by Edmontons Community Services Department says residents in the newest neighbourhoods are being denied parks and recreation facilities because the city cannot afford them. This infrastructure gap, as the report calls it, is partly the creation of unbridled growth and urban sprawl.

Getting it under control and building a smart city for the 21st century demands that elected representatives understand the implications of development decisions and that consumers make smart housing choices. It will distinguish healthy, viable cities and those burdened with debt, crumbling infrastructure and an eroding tax base.

And it will mean understanding the history of how Edmonton grew and how decisions taken in the past have brought us to where we are today. As Edmonton developed and citizens moved from these core neighbourhoods and into the suburbs, they left behind vacant property, emptying schools and deteriorating community services.

Urban planners call it "the doughnut effect," and it"s a trend that is sweeping cities across North America. If it isn't reversed, it will spread to stable neighbourhoods further from the core.

But there are ways to minimize the impact of the doughnut effect and infrastructure gap. Many municipalities are choosing to handle sprawl with solutions aimed at promoting smart growth. Such approaches include establishing urban growth boundaries, preserving farmland and green space, investing in alternative modes of transportation besides the automobile and building compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.

Portland, Oregon offers a case in point. While Metro Portland"s population has grown by almost 50 percent since its Greenline was imposed in 1975, that growth has consumed only two per cent more land. Builders now eagerly support the growth boundaries because there is less red tape and more flexible zoning within the designated growth areas.

For such a sprawl management strategy to work, Edmonton would need to involve the outlying municipalities and develop a coordinated, comprehensive plan that would minimize urban sprawl. It would take teamwork and vision and, for the most part, both have been woefully absent at City Hall.

Last year, the City approved the Heritage Valley development, which calls for 13 new neighbourhoods spread over 2,200 hectares on the outskirts of southwest Edmonton. Within 40 years, the development is to be home to more than 65,000 - a 21st century version of Mill Woods.

Given the infrastructure gap and the financial pressures facing Edmonton, the old ways of thinking must change. We must stop building low density, single use, auto-centric communities. And we must stop gobbling up precious farmland, wetlands and woodlands as if they are an endless resource, ready for our taking.

If going easy on the planet doesnt convince you that sprawl is a devastating blight, consider the economics. Residents of sprawling communities drive three to four times as much as those living in compact, accessible and well-planned areas. Those far flung communities demand new roads and, as those new roads funnel into the existing road network, that only makes traffic congestion worse and results in demands to widen roadways like the proposal that would add more lanes to the Whitemud Freeway in the west end.

If you think that urban sprawl helps increase real estate values, think again. When the economy goes into a downturn, as it eventually does, houses that are least accessible from essential services, more expensive to heat and more expensive to maintain, are the ones that go down in value fastest.

And, when you look at demographics, the question begs: Why build in far flung neighbourhoods anyway" Studies around North America show that, as people age, they increasingly want to live in communities that are interconnected, with shops, public transit and accessible services.

The isolated neighbourhoods furthest from the heart of the city, devoid of amenities, could well become the slums of the 21st century. By building on the fringes of our cities, we are adding to the cost of maintaining an ever more expensive infrastructure.

There is no such thing as a free market, because every development has a citizen-paid cost attached to it. A 1999 Rutgers University study reported that sprawl costs taxpayers more than 20 times what it provides in financial gain to speculators.

Sprawl gobbles up tax money, as dollars go to subsidize new developments instead of improving existing communities. Expenditures include millions of dollars for new water and sewer lines, new schools and increased police and fire protection. The money to pay those bills needs to come from somewhere and that means higher taxes on existing residents, hastening the decline of our urban tax base.

That"s why developers of new subdivisions should pay impact fees to cover the costs of new roads, schools, water and sewer lines and property tax impact studies should be mandatory.

Incentives should be given to developers to revitalize already developed communities and the city should show leadership in attracting businesses, reducing crime and improving schools in established neighbourhoods. Sound like drastic measures" They are and they're what"s needed. Otherwise, brace yourself for hefty property and other tax increases and/or drastic cuts in public services down the road.

If youd like to offer your thoughts, please drop me an email at lawrenceherzog@hotmail.com

For information on reprints of previously published articles, check out my website at www.lawrenceherzog.com


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